Ken Ludwig’s “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” pays homage to the fictional detective’s deductive reasoning skills to solve murder most foul by challenging the audience’s powers of observation as five actors portray more than three dozen characters in a dizzying display of costume-change prestidigitation worthy of The Magic Castle in Hollywood.
The plot hews faithfully to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Sherlock Holmes (Euan Morton) and Dr. John Watson (Usman Ally) are called upon to investigate the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, landed gentry whose sudden demise rekindles an ancient myth of a curse upon the family. The next of kin no sooner arrives to claim his inheritance when his life is in peril.
This is where the fun begins.
Holmes and Watson sift through clues, set traps, risk danger and ultimately solve the caper. Along the way they are helped and hindered by servants, a hotel clerk, street urchins, a police inspector, damsels in distress, a country doctor, a cab driver, an escaped prisoner, and Baskervilles (both dead and alive). All these roles and more portrayed by actors Andrew Kober, Blake Segal, and Liz Wisan under the masterful direction of Josh Rhodes.
Action is housed on a circular stage ringed by a dollhouse-scale Victorian village, courtesy of scenic designer Wilson Chin. The structures lend atmosphere as well as provide a wealth of surprises: A hinged roof opens to reveal a proper tea service underneath; inverting another roof produces a hotel lobby counter that anchors a scene; and when Holmes and Watson dash for a train, a townhouse chimney forcefully issues a column of steam together with the distinctive toot of a locomotive whistle. Utterly charming.
Chin didn’t stop there. Behind the audience the walls are a crowded gallery of oil paintings and mounted trophy heads evoking the grand Baskerville mansion. Lighting designer Austin R. Smith takes advantage of this design treatment by backlighting picture frames, turning them into windows when the story calls for a nighttime exterior scene.
Smith has also suspended above the stage an assortment of chandeliers with enough cobwebs to prompt Miss Havisham to call for a feather duster. Like slow-moving elements of a carousel, various light clusters descend and rise past each other with vintage lighting establishing Holmes’ Baker Street parlor and spherical lights brought nearly to the stage providing the muted light of the eerie moor. The unworldly offstage sound of the hound, created by sound designer Bart Fasbender, will raise the hair on the back of your neck.
Dialog is at times clever, at times groan worthy. To wit, the Baskerville heir Sir Henry (Andrew Kober) is a Texan (he was a Canadian in the original novel). The change of passport goes for cheap laughs by the cowboy-boots-ten-gallon-hat-wearing Sir Henry who speaks his mind without upper-crust reserve and brandishes a six-shooter at the sound of every broken twig as he walks across the moor.
Hitting an out-of-the-park home run is costume designer Shirley Pierson, who goes far beyond magnifying glass, pipe and deerstalker hat with a boatload of costume changes, many of which take place right before your eyes. Downright astonishing to see a character race across the stage, catch a coattail on a nail and suddenly become unrecognizable in new garb and with a new persona of the opposite sex.
So integral are costume changes to the production that the dressers joined the actors for a richly deserved round of applause at curtain call.